Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Second Sunday of Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent on March 8, 2020.

The Second Sunday of Lent, 2020


Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5,13-17 
John 3:1-17

Our Gospel reading this week contains two very famous well-known and well-loved verses.

The first is in John 3:3. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and he has been making quite an impression on people, not all of it favourable.  Although it is still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in John’s account of it, already Jesus is making enemies amongst the authorities there.

Not all, however, are against him, and one person, in particular, wants to find out more.  He is Nicodemus, who, John tells us, is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews.  Nicodemus comes, therefore, to Jesus by night to find out more about him.

Some commentaries suggest Nicodemus came by night because he would have been too busy during the day, and this would have been a convenient time for him.  It is much more likely that it is because he doesn’t want to be seen!  But, in John’s Gospel, ‘night’ also has a symbolic significance.  Nicodemus comes by night, but it is clear that is he who is in darkness.

Nicodemus begins by complimenting Jesus:

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (John 3:2)

This is more than flattery.  He genuinely does believe that Jesus could not be doing what he is doing unless God is with him.  But he still doesn’t know what to make of it.

Jesus gets straight to the point.  He tells Nicodemus bluntly:

‘Unless a person is born again, they cannot see the Kingdom of God.’  (John 3:3)

Nicodemus is shocked, he asks:

‘How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ (John 3:4)

This famous exchange has given rise to some Christians describing themselves as ‘born again Christians’ to distinguish themselves, apparently, from those Christians who have not.

It is true that many who claim to be Christians have not had a personal encounter with God, and there are many more who seem to be Christian in name only.  The use of the term ‘born again Christian’ is an attempt to describe the sort of experience that Jesus is talking of here.  Nevertheless, it is not a very happy distinction to make because it suggests that it is possible to be a follower of Christ and not be ‘born again’.

Jesus, however, is not seeking to distinguish between different types of Christians.  As far as our Lord is concerned, this is non-negotiable.  He says that to see the Kingdom of God you must be born again.  Or does he?

He certainly says something must happen, but you will see that in some translations what Jesus says must happen is that a person must be born ‘from above’ rather than ‘born again’.  The Greek word that John uses here is ‘anothen’, which can be translated either ‘again’ or ‘from above’.  So, which is it?

In one sense, it doesn’t matter.  If it is ‘born from above’, it would also imply, given that this is not how we are born naturally, that we would have also to be born again.  And if the right translation is ‘born again’, then that would beg the question as to how it is to happen.  This is something that Jesus goes on to talk about with his insistence on being ‘born of the Spirit’.  So each translation implies the other.

But, in any case, we probably don’t have to choose as St John likes these sort of ambiguities and probably intends us to understand the word he uses both ways.  He certainly makes clear that both are true.  Of course, having sorted that out we are still left with the question of how and why.

The ‘why’, Jesus tells Nicodemus, is because those born once from below are flesh.  Flesh here, refers not to the physical matter of which we are made, although it includes that.  It is all that we are in our natural state as human beings.  It is the way we are born.  But why should being naturally human not be good enough?  And how are we to be born again from above?

For the answer to these two questions, we need to move to the second famous verse in this passage:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

This has been described as the golden verse of the Bible, and it is one that we read here at Christ Church every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

The reason that God gave his only Son, it tells us, was so that we would not perish, so that we may be saved, and so we would not be condemned.  But if that’s the case, then it follows that, as things stand, we are perishing and are in need of saving, and that unless we are saved, we stand condemned.

This, then, is what Jesus means to be ‘flesh’.

St Paul describes us as being ‘dead in our trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1).  St John would not disagree.  He records Jesus as saying that he had come that people might ‘have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10).  In his first letter, he writes:

‘Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.’  (1 John 5:12)

Dead, perishing, condemned, and in need of saving; no wonder that we need nothing less than new birth.

The answer to the how question, then, is also clear.  The new birth we so desperately need, must, says Jesus, be from above.  For to be born again from above is for Jesus something that can only be accomplished by God himself.  Our new birth can only come by the work of the Spirit through faith in the One who God gave for us.  It is not something that we are able to accomplish ourselves.  We are too lost and far gone for that.  There’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.

And here’s the problem: we don’t like thinking of ourselves in this way.  We do like that Jesus promises us an abundant life.  We are happy to follow him as a Rabbi, a teacher who can act as our guide when we feel the need of one.  But having to write-off our existing life as quite literally a dead loss is not something that we are quite so keen on.

So, what to do?  Some just simply write Jesus off instead.  Sure, he says some things that sound good and which may even be worth exploring, if we had the time, but, after all, he’s just one teacher amongst many.  No need to confine ourselves just to him.

Many of us, however, for all sorts of reasons, don’t want to write Jesus off.  Like Nicodemus, we are attracted to him and like some of what he has to say.  We like, for example, what we see as his welcoming and inclusive approach to people; the way he reaches out to those in trouble and accepts people no matter how they may have failed in the past and regardless of who they are or where they have come from.

So, we do what Peter tried to do when Jesus said things he didn’t want to hear: we try to shut him up.  Or we just ignore them.  We take those things he says which we like, and which indeed have truth in them, and make them our Gospel.

We make as our Gospel what the Devil tried to get Jesus to make his Gospel in our reading from Matthew last week.  Jesus is the Son of God and, therefore, can make bread out of stone, so he will provide for us materially.  God does indeed promise, as the Devil points out, to look after his Son and keep him from harm, so he will look after us and keep us from harm if we follow him.  And the Kingdoms of this world together with their power and glory rightfully belong to Jesus, so why shouldn’t they belong to us who believe in him too?

The Devil tested Jesus by trying to persuade him to follow a way that was based on material satisfaction, well-being, and success.  One which put himself and his needs firmly at the centre.  The Devil failed with Jesus, but he has succeeded with us.

And so, this is increasingly the sort of Gospel on offer in many Churches.  As I said last week, it is the Devil’s Gospel.  Oh yes, we can appeal to Biblical texts in support of it just as the Devil did, but they are texts which are being used as a pretext to avoid what God wants of us.  It is a Gospel that appeals to those born of the flesh, but not yet born of the Spirit.

So maybe we need to distinguish between Christians after all.  For to be born again from above by the Spirit means believing in Jesus and following him in the way he opened up for us; a way that is narrow and hard and leads to the Cross.

Yesterday was the Feast Day of Perpetua and Felicity and their companions.  They were followers of Christ at the beginning of the third century who rejected the Devil’s Gospel and refused to take the easy way.  Followers who put Christ at the centre of their lives and who paid for it with their lives.

‘This is how much God loved the world’, St John writes, that he gave his only Son for us, and now he calls us to give ourselves to his Son.

Jesus told his followers that the only way to life was to ‘eat his flesh and drink his blood’ and that unless we did so we would ‘not have his life within us’ (John 6:53).  Only, in other words, by completely identifying with him and accepting his way will we find the way to life.  Only this way can we be born again from above by the Spirit.  No wonder that many of his disciples decided after he said this to stop following him.  Too much!  It was just too much.

After many had deserted him, Jesus asked his closest disciples, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ (John 6:67).  It is a question Jesus now asks us.  St Peter answered Jesus:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

It was the answer that Perpetua, Felicity, and their friends gave when they were asked to turn away from Christ.  They preferred instead death, a violent and bloody death, rather than even contemplate such a desertion.

And so today the choice is ours:

‘For this is how much God loved us that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’

Will we believe in him or will we, like so many, turn away?

May we respond like St Peter and like Sts Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions did:

‘Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.’

In other words, may we show by our faith in Jesus that we are people who have been born again from above.


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